On the inconsistency and inadequacy of booksellers’ book condition ratings:
a critique
– 20 August 2009

One of the more fundamental problems of book-buying online is that booksellers tend to summarise books’ condition in pithy words like ‘fair’, ‘good’, ‘very good’, ‘near fine’ and ‘fine’. Yet they have very inconsistent standards of interpretation of these terms, and there are vast international differences too. Here I shall share my own observation of the range of what they usually mean, and what it may mean when no condition is mentioned at all.

‘Fine’ – this means that although a book has been preowned (and is therefore technically not ‘new’, there are no visible signs of wear to the interior or exterior, no faults to the binding, and no internal markings of any kind by former owners. However, standards for ‘fine’ vary with the age of the book. A book from the 1940s might be described as ‘fine’ because it is exceptionally well-preserved for its age although it is not new.

‘Near fine’ – this means that the book has no internal markings except possibly on the endpapers (generally considered very acceptable for collectible books since it is overwhelmingly common), and visible but only light external wear – for example, there may be a low level of visible discoloration or soiling to the bottom edges of the boards, the extremities of the spine, and the outer corners of the boards, and lightly along the outer hinges between the spine and boards, but no structural damage to the binding, and only a minimal amount of creasing to the covers. There might alternatively be no wear at all but a very small amount of visible staining, soiling or discoloration to parts of the surface of the boards, spine or covers.

If a book has a separate dust jacket, it is likely to be given its own condition rating. Here, ‘near fine’ means that there is some visible wear but only minimal structural loss if any at all – commonly, there might be very slight erosion or tearing at the extremities of the folds between the covers of the dust jacket and the flaps of the same.

‘Very good+’ means that there are no internal markings (except possibly light erasable pencil) on the main text pages of the book (but again, there might be on the endpapers), while the exterior of the book has a moderate amount of visible wear, soiling or staining but remains structurally uncommonly complete and sound. If it is a softcover book, there may be some creases but not as many as on a more heavily worn book.

‘Very good’ means that, while the main text pages of the book are free from internal markings (except erasable pencil) and the structure of the book is sound, there is heavier external wear, soiling, staining, and / or discoloration. On a softcover book, there will probably be extensive creasing to the covers and spine if you look closely, and possibly minimal tearing to the extremities of the spine and the outer corners of the covers. So basically ‘very good’ describes an internally clean, structurally sound but externally markedly worn or creased book.

A dust jacket being called ‘very good’ will not be structurally quite complete. There will be at least some tears along the folds between covers and flaps, at the top and tail of the spine, along the spine hinges, or at the top or bottom of the covers. But they should either be so-called ‘closed tears’ (with no actual loss of material) or involve only a small amount of material loss (often called ‘chipping’).

‘Very good-‘ is the same as ‘very good’ with the exception that the ‘minus’ denotes the addition of a moderate but noticeable problem to the exterior structure of the book. There will be significant tearing and / or loss to the extremities of the spine or separation down its hinges between the spine and the covers. There might alternatively or additionally be a weakness in the internal binding. When you open the book inside the front or rear cover, you may see that the binding is gradually splitting between the covers and the adjacent endpapers, or you might find a major weakness between two pages elsewhere within the book, as is very common on older hardcover books of the early 20th century for example.

‘Good+’, ‘Good’ and ‘Good-‘, properly, are the same as ‘Very good+’, ‘very good’ and ‘very good-‘, respectively, with the notable exception that there will be indelible former owners’ marks on main text-pages or plates within the book – perhaps marginal notes, underlinings, highlighting, big ink spills, or other defacements. No matter how few words are affected, any book at all that has any of these marks should never be listed as ‘very good’. If it was, then you have the right to return the book for a refund or negotiate a partial refund with the seller. Unfortunately, some booksellers are extremely careless about inspecting the interior of their books before they list them. They are in a hurry to list many in a short time, so they flick quickly through the text-block in a matter of seconds, without opening every page, and assume that if they don’t see any indelible notes, underlinings, highlightings, etc., there are none. This approach is totally irresponsible. Every page needs to be checked. Even some booksellers dealing in expensive antiquarian books are sometimes guilty of taking shortcuts in this respect. The presence of any ink or indelible pencil or crayon marks on any main text page will seriously cut the value of any book, so this is very important.

Any dust jacket in only ‘good’ condition will have much heavier structural losses. It will still be usable and in one piece, but there will be major losses to the periphery, and / or long closed tears.

There is also another major problem here, which is that some booksellers will rate books only as ‘good+’ or ‘good’ even when they DON’T have any indelible notes, highlighting or underlining inside, provided that the level of exterior wear is uncommonly great. While technically all such books are ‘very good’, some booksellers will downgrade the rating on account of exterior wear alone to ‘good’. These books may be more valuable than they sound. It’s worth asking booksellers why their books are rated only as ‘good’ if no underlining, notes or highlighting are specifically mentioned, the price is good, and no listings in ‘very good’ or ‘near fine’ condition are available and affordable. They can then sometimes turn out to be bargains, but if you don’t ask and take a gamble, don’t expect the bookseller to take it back when you find it is riddled with highlighting or underlining in ink that he didn’t mention: the very fact that he called it ‘good’ and not ‘very good’ covers him against any such claim.

Sometimes, the reason for downgrading the rating to ‘good’ despite the lack of any internal notes may in itself be reason enough to avoid the copy. It might be riddled with worming in the margins, which occasionally effaces some letters of text (this can be acceptable on a very rare, very old book, however, so long as all the words are still legible). It might have serious paper-warping problems and be full of horrible unsightly tide-marks on its main pages from past major damp exposure or drink spills (this is surprisingly commonly found on used books, even when it is not mentioned by the bookseller, so beware).

‘Fair’ generally indicates that the book has very serious structural problems but is not yet completely falling apart as you turn the pages, though the covers may be completely detached and the outer spine may be mostly or all gone. There could be any amount of internal marking in such a book, the paper could be extremely damp-stained and warped, and there might be extensive worming with some words lost altogether, or several missing plates if the book is supposed to have them.

Any dust jacket in only ‘fair’ condition’ will be in a sorry state. It will have suffered much heavier erosion and tearing again than one in ‘good’ condition; it may be disconnected altogether between the covers and flaps, or one or both flaps may be missing.

‘Poor’ is the lowest grade of all. Such a book is likely to have fallen apart at the binding, so it will arrive in multiple pieces loosely placed together, with or without the covers. Sometimes such a book is called ‘disbound’.

Or, it might appear structurally intact but have one or more main text pages missing. No matter how beautifully bound, any such book is by definition ‘poor’ because the main texts of the book is not all there. In rare cases, the missing leaves may have been replaced in good-quality manuscript, typescript or facsimile. This would elevate the condition automatically to ‘fair’ or ‘good’ depending on how many pages had been replaced and the quality of the replacements, provided that the binding was sound.

A dust jacket in ‘poor’ condition will probably be not only heavily eroded, probably with the loss of a considerable part of the printed material on it, but also close to completely splitting down the spine as well as the folds to the flaps, or might already be in pieces.

Now here are some of the pitfalls to beware of:

1) Amateur sellers listing old unwanted books on Amazon marketplace often exaggerate or flat-out lie about their condition, claiming ‘like new’ when there are heavy reading creases to the spine and outer corners. They want to believe their books are worth more than they are. They may also call books ‘very good’ even when they have highlighting or underlining, simply because they are sound on the outside. Professionals almost never do this, fortunately.

2) Where books are listed for sale in non-English-speaking countries, sellers much more commonly simply neglect to tell you anything about the condition, so to purchase blind would be extremely risky. They just list the author and title and expect you to buy blind and unguided. This is particularly common in France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, in my observation. Some sellers in these countries are much more thorough, but they are few.

For the sellers in these countries who do mention condition, they also often have a policy of only listing major defects to it. This means that for these sellers, the lack of any description of condition may in fact be a good sign that the book is in very good or better condition. Sometimes if you read the bookseller’s terms and conditions, such a policy will be expressly stated. But they will still let some noteworthy flaws go unmentioned and expect you to put up with it.

3) In France, where they are rated at all, books are commonly rated as ‘état de neuf’, ‘très bon état’, ‘bon [état]’, ‘état moyen’, or ‘état d’usage’. These do not directly transpose into their English equivalents, however. The first is ‘fine’, the second is generally ‘near fine’, the third is ‘very good’, the fourth and fifth are both usually ‘good’, but the fifth can sometimes also be only ‘fair’. ‘Bon’ in French is therefore the equivalent of ‘very good’ in English, but it can sometimes also be the equivalent of only ‘very good-‘. French booksellers will not usually tell you about separation along the hinges of the spine. It will still be ‘bon’.

I hope this was somewhat educational to anyone affected.

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